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Hints on Household Taste
By Charles L. Eastlake
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1969 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
IT is always interesting to note the early impressions which the superficial aspect of our country produces on foreigners who visit it for the first time, and to compare those impressions with feelings such as we have ourselves experienced under similar conditions on the Continent. After making every allowance for the charm of novelty, which of course goes far to enhance a stranger's enjoyment on these occasions, we cannot doubt that there is much in the external appearance of foreign life which possesses especial attractions for our countrymen. The first glimpse, for instance, which we get, after crossing the Channel, of such a town as Dieppe, or the gratification which we derive from wandering for the first time through the streets of a city like Nuremburg, whose general aspect has remained almost unaltered since the Middle Ages, is associated with a sense of what may be called eye-pleasure, which is utterly absent in our English provincial towns. The latter may be better paved, cleaner swept, and more expensively laid out than their French or German rivals ; but they are for the most part utterly wanting in one important element of architectural merit—viz. the picturesque. When we pass on to compare the capital of France with our own metropolis, a still wider difference is discernible, though from causes of another kind. Modern Paris is fast losing—if, indeed, it has not quite lost—the romantic interest which once attached to its genius loci. The quaint irregularly built streets, the overhanging corbelled stories and high-pitched gable-fronts which rise before us as we read 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame,' and which lingered down to the days of Smollett, and even to our own time, have suddenly disappeared before the rapid and extensive improvements which were carried on under the late Imperial Government.
Anyone who has traced on an old map of Paris the labyrinth of dark and narrow streets through which the Rue de Rivoli has boldly cut, or who can remember the former aspect of those quarters now intersected by the Boulevart Sebastopol, and other thoroughfares, will bear witness to the almost magical effect of a transformation which the social economist or the sanitary commissioner indeed may view with satisfaction, but which the artist and antiquary cannot but deplore. The architecture of modern Paris is by no means all that a man of sound taste can approve. It is cold and formal in general effect. In detail it is somewhat garish, but more often simply uninteresting. The long unbroken line of cornice, window-range, or parapet, which presents itself to the eye in interminable perspective, becomes wearisome even in the widest and loftiest of streets. Yet, right or wrong, there is a uniformity of purpose, a character and completeness about the work, which not only bears the impress of a national taste, but exhibits the influence of some direct and competent supervision. Unfortunately in England we can boast of no national taste in architecture, and the scheme on which our Executive Government is based prevents anything like State interference regarding the design of buildings devoted to private enterprise or occupation. So every householder or merchant builds according to his own fancy, or rather according to the fancy of the professional gentleman whom he employs to plan his villa or his warehouse.
Of course I am now alluding to the best structures of each class. As for the myriads of cockney cottages, suburban streets, tawdry shop-fronts, and stuccoed terraces, which are rising up in the outskirts of London, they speak for themselves; and as long as people of humble means will insist on assuming the semblance of luxuries which they cannot really afford, vulgarities of design and structural deceits must prevail in this direction. But where there is no stint of means—where the work, if done at all, should, and might easily be done well, and where, under these conditions, we find taste neglected, and money thrown away, the result is indeed melancholy to contemplate.
Perhaps the most consistent phase of modern street architecture in London is that which has appeared in connection with the West-end clubs. Yet these, as a rule, are but copies, and, not unfrequently, vitiated copies, of actual buildings illustrating an exotic school of art which had never a footing in England until our own had been lost or degraded. The so-called Italian style—now understood to include every variety of Renaissance design which prevailed in Rome, Venice, and Florence, from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century—has its aesthetic merits and its practical advantages. But they are merits and advantages which are unsuited to the age, to the climate, and to the country in which they are reproduced. It does not require the judgment of an accomplished connoisseur to perceive that mouldings and carved enrichments which look well under the glowing effect of a Venetian sky, must appear tame and spiritless through the leaden atmosphere of London. We want in England a less refined and more nervous expression of architectural beauty—bold and sturdy features, which will hold their own against wind and rain, and defy the smoke and traffic of our busy coal-burning towns. But it is not often that we can complain with any reason of undue refinement in our imitations of Italian architecture. Even those which are confessedly copied from old examples miss, either intentionally or through inaccurate workmanship, the delicacy of the original design. And, in too many instances, where our architects have ignored the value of precedent, and struck out a new line for themselves, the result has been hopelessly clumsy or bizarre. It is only by a long and careful course of study, based on naturally good and inventive taste, that these mistakes can be avoided on the part of the designer. And it is only by the well-directed and long-sustained efforts of designers that the British public will ever be brought to distinguish good from bad in modern architecture. Ignorant amateurs of the art may be divided into two classes—those who have a smattering of book lore on the subject, and who think no building worth looking at which is not based on 'authority,' or, in other words, which is not copied from some existing work; and those who have a morbid craving after novelty at the expense of every other consideration, including that invaluable standard of architectural fitness which is supplied by common sense.
It is to the first of these two classes that we are indebted for the encouragement and support of the pseudo-classicism with which, in the form of churches, clubs, and public institutions, London was deluged in the early part of this century. The tide of public favour afterwards turned in an opposite direction; and while all must admit the laudable zeal with which Pugin and his followers endeavoured to revive old English architecture in this country, it is lamentable to reflect how many monstrous designs were perpetrated under the general name of Gothic, which neither in spirit nor letter realised the character of mediaeval art. In London these extraordinary ebullitions of uneducated taste generally appear in the form of meeting-houses, music-halls, and similar places of popular resort. Showy in their general effect, and usually overloaded with meretricious ornament, they are likely enough to impose upon an uninformed judgment, which is incapable of discriminating between what Mr. Ruskin has called the Lamp of Sacrifice—one of the glories of ancient art—and the lust of profusion which is the bane of modern design. These extravagances are not confined to a perversion of Gothic. Some of the 'Monster' hotels, railway stations, and other buildings of a type unknown to our forefathers, but now erected in London, are decorated after a fashion which is equally novel, and which has nothing but novelty to recommend it. But then most of these buildings are six or seven stories high, make up so many hundred beds, and are managed by a host who is so important a personage that we never see him at all! These facts, doubtless, enhance our respect for an establishment which, on a smaller scale, might be open to some criticism on the ground both of personal convenience and of artistic propriety.
Some attempts at architectural display are occasionally made in the way of shop-fronts. But here a certain practical difficulty attends the designer. However elegant the superstructure may be, it has one drawback; it must rest on nothing, or, at least, apparently on nothing; the aim of every modern retail dealer being to expose his goods for sale behind a single sheet of plate glass. In accordance with this object—for which no explanation can ever be given except that it is universal—iron columns are furtively introduced, and as carefully concealed by millinery, upholstery, or sometimes by craftily-contrived mirrors, so that when all is finished the upper portion of the building seems absolutely suspended in the air. Such conditions are not exactly fitted for ordinary treatment of design; yet the shop-front architect delights in ignoring them altogether, and in loading his upper stories with pediments, columns, niches, and cornices, just as if they stood on a basement as solid as that of the Pitti Palace. It seems astonishing that the old practice of turning a sound arch or placing a real lintel over every shop-window should have fallen into such disuse. Yet so seldom is this done, and so much does the objectionable practice of using iron columns and girders in such places prevail, that some blocks of newly re-built shops at the west-end of Oxford-street, on the Marquis of Westminster's estate, are quite conspicuous as an exception—and in this respect a creditable exception—to the general rule.
Of the dwelling-houses in London, those which have any pretension to architectural design are few in number, and lie chiefly in the neighbourhood of the parks or of the oldest West-end squares. But the ordinary residences of fashionable life—the mansions of Belgravia, Tyburnia, and Mayfair—are mere shells of brick and stucco, which present such a dreary appearance outside that one is surprised sometimes to find them palaces of comfort within.
The Frenchman who expressed his opinion that London had ceased to be a town, and was becoming a vast province, uttered no mere hyperbole. Between the years 1800 and 1860 this metropolis not only doubled, but trebled, the size which it had assumed at the close of the last century. At the present time, including the suburbs, it occupies a superficial area of at least 130 square miles. On an average, about 1,000 houses are added to it every year; and so rapidly does building go on in every direction, that no one need be surprised to find the meadow-land which he walked on in spring laid out in populous streets by Christmas. There is, however, a great difference between the gradual development of the old city and the additions which we make to our modern capital. When Bloomsbury was still a fashionable district, its inhabitants no doubt regarded it as a permanent enlargement of London, and looked forward to the time when their children's children might own the tenements which they bought or rented. That is a source of prospective pleasure in which the inhabitants of Belgravia and Tyburnia cannot indulge. According to the present system of tenure adopted for house property, the rule is to build residences which are only intended to last a certain number of years. At the end of that term they fall into the possession of the landowner on whose estate they are erected, and thus it is to the interest of his tenant (who, in nine cases out of ten, is a speculating builder) not to spend more money on their construction than is absolutely necessary.
This is an unsatisfactory state of things even in a primâ facie view of the matter. To calculate the stability of a house so nicely that at the expiration of, say, seventy years, it shall only be fit to be pulled down and sold for old materials, is a method of reckoning which obviously involves some discomfort, not to say danger, to its latest occupant. But, unfortunately, this is not the extent of the evil. In the earnest endeavour to avoid the expense of an unnecessary stability, these economists too frequently err on the side of weakness. To speak plainly, it will be a miracle if half the houses which are now being raised in and about London do not, in the ordinary course of things, tumble down long before their allotted time. Unfortunately, their flimsy construction is not always apparent to an inexperienced eye. The old brick mansions of the early Georgian era, although unpretentious in appearance, were at least as strong as good burnt clay and duly mixed mortar could make them; the walls were of substantial thickness; the timber was dry, sound, and of ample dimensions; the foundations were well laid; the roof was of a convenient pitch and covered with the best of slates; the doors were securely hung, and a true lintel or a real arch, with properly tapering voussoirs, was turned over every window. The woodwork and fittings of these houses, though modelled in a pseudo-classic taste, were excellent in workmanship, and frequently spirited in detail; while the wrought iron introduced to decorate their façades in the shape of gates and area-railings is designed in thorough accordance with the nature and properties of the material employed. The truth is, that in those days, inferior or dishonest work would soon have been detected, for there was nothing to conceal it from public view. Plaster was of course used internally, as it had been during centuries past, for the sake of convenience and cleanliness; but no one had yet conceived the idea of coating the front of a brick house with a composition which should give it the appearance of masonry. In an evil hour stucco was invented; and thenceforth, wherever it was employed, good and bad work was reduced, in the eyes of the general public, to one common level. It mattered little whether brick or rubble, English or Flemish bond were used; whether the courses exceeded their proper height by a dangerous preponderance of mortar; whether the openings were really arched over or only spanned by a fictitious lintel. What signified such considerations as these when the whole front was to be enveloped in a fair and specious mask of cement?
How far this detestable practice has increased in London anyone familiar with the principal suburban squares and streets can well testify. But what the general public do not know is that the structural deceits which it conceals are daily becoming so numerous and flagrant that they positively endanger life and property. How frequently have we heard, during the last few years, of the fall of houses which have been built even within the recollection of the rising generation? The only wonder is that these casualties do not happen every day. Of course, when an accident has occurred, the district surveyor is called in as a responsible agent to give evidence before the authorities of the state in which the house was when he last examined it. But this examination is too frequently a mere matter of form. It is the surveyor's business to arrest and remedy any gross violation of the Building Act. But in a populous and suburban district, where houses are being run up (as the phrase is) in all directions, it is impossible for him to be in all places at once, or attempt to keep up a constant supervision. Besides, in the matter of bricklaying, as in all other concerns of life, it is very easy to keep within the letter of the law and at the same time disregard its spirit.
The Building Act itself, though framed in such a manner as to exclude many picturesque features from a London street, is on the whole rather lenient on the subject of roof-scantlings and the dimensions of a party wall. An architect who should attempt to add to the effect of his elevation by a bay-window looking into the street or by overhanging eaves (even provided with a gutter) would find himself somewhat impeded by existing legislation. Yet a heavy 'compo' cornice, barely strong enough to support itself, is allowed to project a considerable distance from the front wall, daily threatening the lives of passers-by; and a miserable lintel, composed of fragments of brick, stuck together with mortar in the weakest possible form, is often used under the name of a 'flat arch.'
Excerpted from Hints on Household Taste by Charles L. Eastlake. Copyright © 1969 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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